In looking for web resources on Buber to blog about, I’ve come across an interesting phenomenon: there are very few and they are mostly introductory. Every time we do a podcast, I cast the Google net to see if there are interesting, useful or funny things out there on the net I can share with our audience about the subject of the episode. When I did this for I and Thou, the vast majority of the top hits are expository whether in video or text.
This tells me two things: first, lots of people are looking for help understanding the text so there are a lot of people out there doing basic summary/intro work on it. Second, after reading it folks typically don’t engage/re-engage with it as part of the tradition. There are, for example, few if any easily accessible online talks or papers on the relationship between Buber and Kierkegaard, Heidegger or Husserl. There is more work on Buber treated as a theologian both from the Jewish and Christian perspective. For the most part, however, this kind of engagement work is limited to scholarly articles.
Given that I-Thou was written for wider consumption, it is also the case that most of the Buber scholarship that attempts to put him into a tradition or in conversation with other thinkers involves his other works. He was exceptionally prolific, writing original philosophy and theology, political and Zionist philosophy, translations and more. He also worked in collaboration with, among others, Franz Rosenzweig.
It was Buber’s collaborative nature that brought me to his correspondence. If the scholarly literature is less interested in putting him in dialogue with others, maybe it would be interesting to look at those with whom Buber actually corresponded in life. The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue (Martin Buber Library) is a selection from his three-volume collection of correspondence. In it are exchanges with Albert Einstein, Herman Hesse, Albert Schweitzer, Franz Kafka, Theodor Herzl, Albert Camus, Chaim Weizmann, Stefan Zweig and Dag Hammarskjold. Now that’s an eclectic group of acquaintances and doesn’t begin to touch on the broad range of people with whom he interacted in his lifetime.
This points to the difficulty in both placing Buber in a tradition and engaging with him. During the podcast we struggled with whether the text was a work of philosophy or religion, whether it was meant to be argumentative, persuasive or simply prophetic, whether he was responding to or expounding upon previous philosophical work. Looking at the way Buber engaged with brilliant individuals in philosophy, religion, politics, literature, the sciences and other humanist figures we may surmise that I and Thou was meant to be all of these things and probably that Buber didn’t care that or if he fit nicely into any tradition.
Because our educational structure and general society require that we identify with and work within “verticals”, it is very difficult to engage with ideas, products, concepts or technologies that cross categories or genres. In academia you are in Philosophy, Literature, Economics, Sociology, Computer Science or whatever. In business you are in Manufacturing, Finance, Insurance, Energy, Technology or whatever. In your job you are an Engineer, Technician, Program manager, Product manager, People manager, Marketing director or whatever. I remember thinking when the internet boom was on and people at startups (like Google) had cool and creative titles that maybe traditional concepts of hierarchy, responsibility and limitations were beginning to break down. The machine of corporatism crushed those notions. Herman Hesse indeed…